A cook’s ‘instinct’; and asparagus and feta tarts

I think one of the most satisfying moments in cooking is when you realise you can customise a dish and make it better, or, at least, more suited to our palette at that moment in time. I mentioned in a previous post the bold experimentalism of my younger years, including halloumi soup, and an everything-in-my-fridge pasty. But with the first steps of food knowledge come an excessive caution, at least for me.

Aside from minor ad-hoc spicing, I was for a long time afraid to differ from a recipe – at all. I didn’t trust my natural instinct for matching flavours and was to scared to attempt it. Of course, I see now that is these experiments – sometimes delicious and sometimes inedible – that help you gain a sense of what flavours work and what don’t. Instead, I went for the Julie Powell style of teaching myself to cook, slavishly following recipes and setting little to-do lists of things I want to try (I still have plenty of these lists).

Still, though, I feel at a loss with the idea of creating recipes ‘from scratch’. When I asked Fiona Beckett how she did it, she told me it was from those little moments of adaption in the kitchen, perhaps when you’re lacking an ingredient and substitute something else, only to find it infinitely better in flavour. Creativity in cookery is different from artistic creativity, and plagarism, even in its most minor forms, is inevitable. A good cook brings together all their experiences of food, from old stained cookbooks, from their mother’s cooking, from favourite restaurants and from foreign cuisines. Combine this with the ingredients that are available to you and you have the basis of a cook’s ‘natural instinct’.

asparagus and feta creme fraiche tarts with fresh mint and lemon zest

This Nigel Slater recipe was a useful one as it suddenly dawned on my how simple it is to make a delicious puff pastry tart – simply create a creamy filling of any ingredients you fancy, pile them in the middle of a circle of puff pastry, then brush the edges with egg. The messy puffed sides are a mile away from the primness of some pastry cooking, and all the better for it. This time all I did was skip the parmesan, mash some barrel-aged feta into the mixture with a fork, and substitute the parsley for mint, to create asparagus, feta and creme fraiche tarts with lemon zest and fresh mint. So perfect for the season and so light and delicious.

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